Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Black Panther's Rage: Revolt in Wakanda
In the 1970s, there were a number of Marvel Comics writers that I idolized. Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, Marv Wolfman, etc. Yet perhaps none was more revolutionary than Don McGregor, who I first encountered when I picked up the seemingly innocuous Jungle Action #6, the first all-new solo title featuring the Black Panther!
What a shock this issue was to a reader accustomed to seeing the Panther fighting alongside the Avengers in New York City. Don McGregor took the Panther back to his kingdom--Wakanda--the seemingly glittering nation full of Vibranium and people with advanced engineering degrees. But this facade is pulled back, and we discover--due to his long periods in the United States (with the Avengers)--the Panther was close to being usurped by a powerful Wakandan named Killmonger. In the first chapter, Killmonger thrashes T'Challa with a spike-studded strap and throws him down the aptly named Warrior Falls!
McGregor was joined in the first few chapters of Panther's Rage by an artist well suited to draw his stories--Rich Buckler. Many of Buckler's pages had a cinematic feel, and he did incredible things with logos--like this one for the issue titled, Malice by Crimson Moonlight.
As a dyed-in-the-wool Marvelite, I kept waiting for the Fantastic Four or the Avengers to show up and help T'Challa out. They never did; this was an internal fight for T'Challa, a spiritual battle as well as a physical one. Instead, McGregor created an all-African cast of supporting characters and made them come alive: W'Kabi, Taku, and his American girlfriend, Monica Brant. And most of the villains were black as well: besides Killmonger, we had the super-spear throwing Malice, Baron Macabre, Karnaj, Sombre, and my favorite, Salamander K'ruel. The only white guy I can think of was the Killmonger's lieutenant, Venomm.
Buckler left the series, Gil Kane did a nice guest spot, and then the series really kicked into high gear when Billy Graham came onboard. I had enjoyed Graham's work on Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, but his work on the Panther were simply at a higher caliber. Perhaps being one of the few African-American professionals in the comic book industry, he was inspired by the Panther as well as McGregor's scripts? I'll never forget his work on Panther's Rage, particularly Jungle Action #13 with the chapter titled "The God Killer". In the opening sequence, the Panther, who has been badly injured and stranded in the cold winter mountains of Wakanda, comes across two armed thugs working for Killmonger. The Panther's running on fumes, but he defeats them in an amazing sequence.
Another issue had T'Challa reuniting with his girlfriend Monica after nearly dying a few dozen times while chasing Killmonger. The title, "All Our Past Decades Have Seen Revolutions", is a hard one to fit on a comics page. Billy Graham made it part of the mountain leading into the sea!
There's a sweet moment in Jungle Action #16 for a little intimacy, which I thought Graham depicted in an unusual way. I think very few romantic scenes in superhero comics are touching. This is one of the rare ones. I suppose it was made more romantic by their situation in Wakanda--the people there did not approve of T'Challa mating with a foreigner.
I didn't know until I read Billy Graham's Wikipedia page that he had passed away. What a loss!
At this point in time, Marvel Comics usually did 1-2 issue storylines. I kept expecting the Killmonger storyline to wrap up in 2 or 3 or 6 issues. It did not! By Jungle Action #9, we learned that this story--Panther's Rage--was a saga that was going to continue for a while. It began in Jungle Action #6 in 1973 and concluded in Jungle Action #17 in 1975.
The series was bi-monthly, sometimes quarterly due to delays (the Dreaded Deadline Doom) as I remember, but the hardcore fans who knew this was something exceptional and stuck with it. In the letters pages you can find missives from a young Ralph Macchio (later editor at Marvel), Peter B Gillis (future writer of Strikeforce Morituri) and Dean Mullaney (later publisher of Eclipse).
Don McGregor continued the Panther's adventures in Jungle Action, pitting him against the Ku Klux Klan. That storyline was terminated midway in Jungle Action #24...with the stunning news that Jack Kirby would take over the character! Black Panther #1 debuted shortly thereafter, with story and art by the King. Take about dramatic changes--I thought the editors at Marvel had been lobotomized to make this change!
Kirby's Black Panther was 180 degrees different than McGregor's take on the character. I am sure Kirby never read any of McGregor's stories and didn't bother to incorporate any of the supporting cast. Now I can see it from a different perspective: Jack Kirby must have felt like he owned that character as he co-created the Black Panther in the Fantastic Four!
Well, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did give birth to the Black Panther, but it was Don McGregor, Rich Buckler, and Billy Graham who gave him a soul. Nuff said.
Update: Comments from my old MT blog...